Do it Yourself

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 29, 2017

'THE SUM SPENT DURING THE FIRST YEAR — including the purchase of plant and a considerable amount of work under the second year's programme — is well below estimate.' 'The second year's programme began on April 1, but of this, 3½ miles of dredging has already been completed and five lock gates have been installed …'

The quotations above do not somehow have the content of an official report or the work of an industrial mammoth. Ahead of schedule with cash in hand is not exactly the motto of Britain in the 1960's. They are in fact from a progress report on the Stratford-on-Avon Canal which, under the National Trust, is being restored by voluntary labour. The canal manager, David Hutchings, is an architect.

A closer look at the workings of this canal repair enterprise reads like a fantasy in these days of supposed apathy and non-co-operation (if the cause is drab or unworthy, then apathy can become almost a virtue). The initial grant of money was £20,000, but the balance had to be made up by public subscription. £26,000 was raised in six months, the best appeal that that National Trust has ever conducted. The cost of opening the canal will be half the official estimate and one-third of the cost of closure. The work has been carried out almost entirely by volunteers and it has included fitting lock gates in bad weather, which is hardly the easiest way to spend a weekend … At the end of a year's work, two miles of canal, formerly useless, are open for business or pleasure, and this with an average volunteer force of fifteen …

The same pattern is repeating itself in other ways. Privately run branch railway lines are working at a profit — the fantasy of the Titfield Thunderbolt come true — although the deficit of British Railways mounts every year. One of these branch lines, in Leeds, handles goods traffic and is run by schoolboys. Even in the field of transatlantic air travel, private charter can halve the cost of a journey to America — although most of the world's big airlines are having a job to break even.

But most of the do-it-yourself is an act of love; the profit is incidental. If one symbol of English life is the patient queuer, another is

IAN NAIRN was born in 1930. It was he who coined the word "Subtopia" in his books Outrage and Counter-Attack (about what we are doing to our physical environment) which were originally special numbers of the Architectural Review, of which he is assistant editor. We are grateful for permission to reproduce this article from the November issue.

the folly builder, or fanatical enthusiast, or free-thinker. Together they form a polarity, sometimes present in the same person, like those who stay up all night for a seat at Covent Garden. The Covent Garden queue, in fact, unlike the number eleven bus queue, is a kind of collective do-it-yourself. So is CLASP, which in other countries might have been the result of a massive governmental programme, instead of being an almost impromptu affair of local officials pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. The outstanding architectural example is Eric Lyons and his partner who, when they found themselves frustrated by finance, turned half of themselves into a business concern: be-your-own-client. Thank goodness they did.

The English jet engine came about because a Cranwell officer did-it-himself in his spare time; the hovercraft because Mr. Cockerell begun experimenting with holes in tins. Gordon Cullen's development of Townscape has been just as direct, just as unofficial, just as unprofessional. So was Payne Knight's development of Picturesque Theory. So, to an extreme degree, was William Blake both in his writing and his painting. Art history all but breaks down in England because of the persistence of the man who does not depend on X or Y but sits down and thinks or feels it out for himself. The only thing you can do with Vanbrugh is to begin a new chapter in the book. And you don't even know which book it is — architectural history or theatrical history.

It is very odd that where individual enterprise has been made into the cornerstone of Tory political theory, its near neighbour, do-it-yourself, has not been and is not catered for. (The rough distinction I am making is that enterprise is for profit, do-it-yourself is for joy). In fact both left and right seem to be committed all the time to more official do-it-for-you. Everything is slowly becoming more and more professional. Degrees and qualifications are becoming sine qua non with the best of intentions but often the worst of results. The amateur can always buy his way in, but we used to have a better tradition than that. At the very time when working conditions are making it possible to have one job for existence and another for joy, the ranks are being closed.
There is here a political force, neither left nor right, of some importance. If the affluent society remains affluent, it may grow to be one of the most important of political factors, using 'political' simply in the sense of a like-minded body of men. Such men are not likely to be attracted to a world of power-enterprise where ICI tries to swallow Courtaulds and Ind Coope succeeds in swallowing Taylor Walker. They are equally unlikely to respond to a falsely egalitarian society where everything is nationalized, everything is bureaucratic and done by the books, and nothing has any joy in it at all.

Yet this is precisely the time when do-it-yourself could take over large sections of the economy, and precisely those sections of the economy which have become unprofitable. Even more precisely, it is just because labour rates have risen that railways, canals and even bus companies can now only make a profit out of their big routes. And in other terms, it is partly because the borough engineer is understaffed — there's better money elsewhere — that he can no longer show a town-scape 'profit'; that is, take the care over details that his nineteenth-century predecessors did.

Theoretically, these two should dovetail perfectly: large-scale services run commercially by large-scale concerns, small-scale services run for the fun of it by enthusiastic amateurs. But for this to happen there needs to be goodwill: and this seems to be lacking among the big bodies whose attitude could sometimes be summed up as: if I can't run this (canal, branch line) at a profit, then nobody else to going to have the chance to either. At Stourbridge, for example, volunteers wanted to clean out a British Railways basin at their own expense; but, instead of being grateful, officialdom sent along two officials who said that 'the surface of the canal must not be broken.' They estimated that the cost of cleaning would be £20,000. It cost the volunteers £74. That's no way to live; but it could be paralleled by similar gestures by councils and council officials all over the country — gestures of a blindness which in its way is worse than downright evil.

If each of the big organizations who had things running at a loss would set up a small clearing-house to aid private taking-over instead of giving it what is at best grudging acceptance, the eventual saving would be enormous. Abandonment of a canal, for example, costs £10,000 a mile; abandonment of a railway must cost something comparable. If concerted action were started now, then many of the unprofitable lines need never close at all. All they would lose would be their bureaucratic chains. The converse, of course, is that trunk services need to be run by a highly centralized and highly organized authority — which could also profit by losing its bureaucratic chains.

All that has been said about railways and canals could apply to town planning, which has been a favourite hunting-ground of do-it-yourself ever since the folly and the improver; but nowadays in England it is sewn up so rigidly that the consultant town planner is out of a job.

So, suppose that the trunk town planning services — integrating roads and towns, given a push to the north to balance the drift to the south — were run by a central body, the missing Ministry of Planning; then, at the other end of the scale, as the organic counterpart of this, do-it-yourself could come into its own. There is no real reason why the residents of a particular street should not have the lampstandards of their choice, if they are prepared to pay the extra cost. There are plenty of specious reasons, and the number and variety of these that I have met personally would astonish a Stalinist commissar; we make such a fearful botch of trying to live together. Footpaths, walls, hedges, signs and planting could all be decided by local option, a street or an urban unit at a time. It would not be anarchy* but the principle of freedom of parts within a guiding pattern which makes up the only worthwhile discipline that has ever been invented.

*We think it would be: or at least we hope so! — Editor, ANARCHY.

Government bodies and systems propose; human nature disposes. If freedom of parts is not given willingly then sooner or later, by biological laws, homo sapiens will take it. The contemptuous kick that Albert Finney gave towards the new council house at the end of the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning represents an immense sum of energy, coiled up and stored. Give it some freedom, freedom to really concern itself with the environment, and it will not be abused, because in this respect the English are deeply civilized, though every year bureaucratic obstruction whittles down the inherited store of good nature and fair play. Bottle it up, lard every worthwhile thing round with regulations and restrictive practices, make the qualification system watertight, insist on the union card and the rate for the job, adhere rigidly to the by-laws, and forbid all deviations; then the whole thing will explode in our silly faces.